Car reviews - Mazda - Mazda6 - MPS sedan
Performance, driveability/liveability, engine response, refinement, chassis balance, handling dynamics, six-speed manual, equipment level, safety features, four-door practicality, understated styling, fuel consumption, value for money, quality
Room for improvement
Overly light steering, temporary spare wheel/tyre, some drivetrain snatch from idle, weight increase over standard Mazda6, some road noise on coarse-chip bitumen, no auto version, sometimes tricky clutch, no split-folding rear seat (for good reason)
7 Oct 2005
By TIM BRITTEN
IT’S surprising how often the realisation of an outrageous fantasy can be a less than exciting reality.
Take Mazda’s MPS as an example.
When word first got out that the Japanese company was planning a hot, turbocharged version of the Mazda6 sedan – complete with all-wheel drive – there seemed no limit to the raw, untrammelled performance that would surely transpire when it went into production.
This would be the first all-wheel drive Mazda road car to be seen in Australia since the also-turbocharged 323 4WD hatch from the 1980s and, with the already highly respected capabilities of the "Six" underpinning it, it was surely destined to set a new benchmark for high-performance mid-size sedans.
The MPS indeed sets a new benchmark, but it is not quite the devastating highway weapon many of us expected.
In fact, it proves to be quite understated in its presentation, hardly the sort of thing you’d be embarrassed to be seen in.
Discretion is what the MPS is all about, with just the 18-inch wheels, a tiny boot spoiler and a gently-bulging, reworked bonnet – plus discreet side skirts – to separate it from a regular Six.
And, on the road, it’s more of a grand tourer than a clamped-down, throttle-hungry show pony that would much rather be howling its way around a racetrack than cruising the streets.
The specifications suggest otherwise.
On paper, the MPS sounds like a potential handful with as much as 380Nm of torque and a feisty 190kW of power. The specs bring to mind the Subaru Liberty GT, which is quite a firm, focussed performance car that leaves the grand touring thing to its six-cylinder 3.0R-B sibling.
But the Mazda is more like the latter in the almost-calm, almost unobtrusive way it goes about its business.
The MPS feels at its most suggestive on part-throttle, as the obviously mountainous mid-range torque eagerly reminds you it’s there, ready for business. Tickle the accelerator in the MPS and you’ll often get more results than you expected.
The funny thing is – and this is where the GT aspect comes in – the response doesn’t seem to grow proportionately when the throttle is rammed wide open.
Rather, it’s as if the carefully-mapped torque curve reaches a plateau and stays there. The MPS just lifts its side skirts and proceeds with a steady, even flow.
There's none of the mid-range surge or top-end peakiness you expect in some performance cars – just an almost-silent unravelling of power as you pick your way through the six manual-only ratios.
Such is the steadiness of the torque that accelerating hard in the MPS is a series of short, sharp blasts of acceleration between gearshifts.
Although the turbo is producing power quite low in the rpm range – helped along by a compression ratio of 9.5:1 that is quite high for a forced-induction engine – its best work is being done from 2800rpm onwards as it emits an efficient mechanical buzz rather than a deep-throated exhaust drone.
If there’s any disappointment with the MPS, it’s that the noise isn’t commensurate with its over-the-ground capabilities.
The dual exhausts look promising, but they appear to be there more for cosmetic reasons than the quick expulsion of gases. A look at the tiny pipes hidden within the drainpipe-size orifices in the MPS’s rear bumper tends to confirm this.
So, almost surprisingly, it’s the multi-valve, multi-cam, direct-injection turbo engine that delivers most of the MPS’s refined feel.
The suspension and steering – particularly the latter – are a bit more of what you’d expect, given the Mazda’s specifications.
The ride, while it’s far from being harsh and jolting, is definitely a few notches firmer than a regular Mazda6, and the steering, thanks mainly to the seven-inch-rimmed, 18-inch wheels and their low-profile 215/45 R18 tyres, picks up some of the bump-steer you expect in a car where the specs tell you zero to 100km/h can be accomplished in 6.6 seconds.
The result is that the MPS, unlike the meticulously progressive Six, requires a bit of extra concentration to counteract bump-imbued deviations when being pushed moderately hard over a lumpy road.
On the plus side, the car is very responsive to steering wheel inputs.
The MPS also gets electronic stability control as standard – something not yet fitted to its arch-rival, the Subaru Liberty GT.
The brakes, bigger at both front and rear, have the bite you’d expect - although it’s something of a surprise, in a package like this, that ventilated rotors are used on the front wheels only.
All this adds up to a mid-size car that doesn’t feel as frighteningly fast as you might expect, yet returns competently quick point-to-point times in a seemingly effortless way.
Certainly the MPS has been a carefully considered project, right from the ground up.
It is about 250kg heavier than a regular Mazda6, and this is not just due to its all-wheel drivetrain, but because the engineers have gone all-out to make the MPS structurally much stiffer.
In fact, it is 50 per cent stronger torsionally than the standard car, achieved though such things as a new cowl member behind the suspension towers that acts as a strut brace, thicker front cross member mounts for the front suspension and at the base of the A-pillars (plus reinforcing gussets at the top), and a diagonal brace behind the (fixed) rear seat.
This gives a more solid platform for a chassis with spring rates 25 per cent firmer at the front and 37 per cent firmer at the rear, retuned dampers and thicker stabiliser bars.
But the thing that allows the beefy Mazda to effectively deliver 380Nm of torque is the all-wheel drive system. All-wheel drive is something that Mazda currently has plenty of experience with through the Tribute SUV.
Most of the time, and like the Tribute, the MPS acts as a front-wheel drive but, when the computer detects a need for more traction, it is able to feed as much as 50 per cent of drive forces back to the rear wheels.
Mazda calls it Active Torque Split, and it automatically makes the appropriate selection from three modes: normal, sports and snow.
Booting the MPS hard off the line sees the system feeding power out back to support the front wheels, which would otherwise be spinning helplessly. The limited-slip rear differential further assures tenacious road grip.
For the driver, all this action is mainly undetectable. All that needs to be concentrated on is maintaining a steady line on bumpy roads, and working through the quite-slick six-speed manual transmission.
The clutch, understandably really, is actually quite heavy and a little sudden in its grip, but is comfortable enough to live with, given some practice.
One thing the driver will appreciate is the seating position. The MPS fits like an old shoe. The two-way adjustable steering wheel, and the multi power-adjustable front seats (with memory on the driver’s side) that come as standard with the optional $6000 leather pack, plus the nice relationship with the floor pedals, all harmonise to give an instantly comfortable driving position.
The seats, leather-trimmed as part of the optional pack, feel properly padded and shaped for good side support, and there’s the fine attention to detail that is not about to give rise to any complaints about the quality not being commensurate with the pricetag.
Standard MPS gear reflects top-end Six models and includes twin front and side airbags, full-length curtain airbags, active front head restraints, Xenon lights, auto-dipping rearview mirror, cruise control and a trip computer.
The leather pack also brings a glass sunroof and seven-speaker Bose sound system with CD stacker.
It side-steps the familiar Six issue of highish interior noise levels in hatchback versions through being based on the sedan body, and having all that extra strengthening. It feels as solid as a rock.
And it’s not bad to live with on a day-to-day basis either. The comfortable interior seats full-size adults with surprising comfort, and the boot is a cavernous, well-shaped place that is only compromised by the MPS not offering a load-through backrest arrangement. Thank the body stiffening for that.
Fuel economy is outstanding by any measure, even if you do need to feed it premium unleaded. An official average of 10.5L/100km works with the 60-litre fuel tank to provide a handy 500km-plus cruising range. We did even better than that on test.
As a highly competent, comfortably fast and responsibly conceived sporting car, the Mazda6 MPS is a refined alternative to the raw-edged, faster and lighter Subaru Liberty GT.
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